The COVID-19 Cycle

In 2020, I embarked on a landmark series of works responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 Cycle is an expansive fantasia unfurling across 14 charcoal drawings on paper with pastel and graphite additions. An explosion of prophetic symbols drawn from post-COVID living, images culled from the international and local media news cycle, surreal interludes of individual psychological reverie and told through diaristic text fragments and enigmatic schoolyard scrawls, the cycle marks a further development of my distinctive drawing style characterised by its collage aesthetic and sensuous, expressive mark-making.

The 14 drawings allude to the 14-day incubation period of the virus, even as time itself eludes linear arrest within the series’ helter-skelter progression. Each panel is anchored by a self portrait of some kind, and loosely chronicles my journey back to Singapore from my studies abroad, my stint in isolation on Stay Home Notice, and my shelter-in-place with family.

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Panel 1: 2020 Vision, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 1: 2020 Vision. Chronologically, this was actually the last panel I started on, but when I was done with it I knew it had to be the opener of the series. I was reminded of a pair of celebratory 2019 New Year’s glasses a friend had given to me, which I updated to read 2020 for context. Here I play on the term 20/20 used to describe perfect vision, with the self-portrait split to evoke a kind of eye chart double vision, or perhaps a premonition of the mask-wearing new normal to come. I like that juxtaposition between the optimism of the new year and the disappointment in hindsight of knowing the year would be anything but normal. I deliberately utilised and left the pencil grid in the final composition because I liked the contrast between the procedural mark of the work’s underlying structure and the expressive gestural mark of the self portrait.

Panel 2: NO ESCAPE / NOW ESCAPE / NOE SPACE, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 2: NO ESCAPE / NOW ESCAPE / NOE SPACE. In comparison, this was the first drawing of the cycle that I completed. I went into it instinctually, not knowing what it (or any of the other drawings of the series) would look like until it was done, but it acts as a good overview of the series, introducing visual motifs which I return to throughout, taking on a different meaning each time: The 3×3 grid, Xs and Os, arrows and lines. Wordplay is also important in the series, such as in the iterative pronouncements which give the panel its title. The appearance of words is also important to me. How words can speak, shout, whisper or squirm through their visual appearance. So actually very little of the text in the series looks like my handwriting on paper. The general theme of the panel is, ironically, the sense of claustrophobia and loss of individual freedom brought about by the policing and enforcement of personal space through social distancing measures.

Panel 3: Cupid’s Social Distancing Arrow, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 3: Cupid’s Social Distancing Arrow. The pandemic has put a lot of strain on our personal intimate relationships, and I wanted to represent that in this panel. It is compositionally divided into a “before” (on the left) and “after” (on the right) kind of split screen, with the paired circular forms and hands repeated and mirroring.

Panel 4: Comot Boy, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 4: Comot Boy. Someone taught me recently that “comot” in Malay means dirty (as in a smear) or unkempt (in a slightly endearing way), which describes many people during circuit breaker I think. I reimagined this as a kooky superhero/vigilante/antihero coming-of-age caper, a blend of autobiographical elements and make-believe. Birds are loaded symbols of the unattainable because they represent a kind of flight and migration which is not possible during the pandemic.

Panel 5: The Truth Fact Fictionary, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 5: The Truth Fact Fictionary. The 1st of two panels in the series dealing with politics in 2020. 2020 was a big election year in Singapore and America, so I felt like I had to acknowledge that. Biden, Trump, Raeesah Khan and PM Lee. I tried to capture the essence of their public personas instead of focusing too much on physical resemblance. But in a way, this is about politicians as larger-than-life icons and the fictions they inhabit in our collective imagination, hence the title. It is also about truth and fact—what does truth mean today in the era of post-truth truthiness and who gets to determine what that is.

Panel 6: Imagined File Photo Self Portrait as Shadow of an Aedes Mosquito, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 6: Imagined File Photo Self Portrait as Shadow of an Aedes Mosquito. The 2nd panel in the series dealing with politics in 2020. I like how Pritam Singh and PM Lee look across the aisle at each other if you place the panels side-by-side. Here I thought about critical opposition in Singapore as exemplified by someone like Alfian Sa’at and the uneasy space he occupies. As I was working on the drawing a mosquito landed on the page and I killed it, so I decided to incorporate that into the final composition. 2020 was also a big year for mosquito breeding because everyone was stuck at home, and my neighbourhood was designated a dengue hotspot. It is one of two dead mosquitoes in the series, although many more died in the making of the work.

Panel 7: Are you awake?, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 7: Are you awake? When I first returned to Singapore at the end of March, I still had half a semester of school to go before my virtual graduation. This drawing was inspired by the online classes I would attend from 2 to 4am in the morning. I tried to encapsulate that relatable feeling of losing track of time during work-from-home (WFH); of work and play switching and repeating; of restless days and nights blurring into an eternal yawn.

Panel 8: Headless Torso (Any Male X-ing), 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 8: Headless Torso (Any Male X-ing). Loosely based on a selfie I took in my hotel bathroom during Stay Home Notice (SHN) while I was bored (so you can tell how skinny I was before circuit breaker), but really it could be anyone. The headless torso is the patron phantom of our social media generation, the stuff of virality. I became quite preoccupied with creating rich tactile surfaces of variety and interest, experimenting with the visual play on forms, and then contrasting this against the sinister black patches of water. The subtitle was added much later as a reference to the Animal Crossing phenomenon of 2020. I think this drawing is very French New Wave.

Panel 9: Shower Drain Abstraction, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 9: Shower Drain Abstraction. I’ve been losing my hair for awhile now, but recently it’s gotten to the point where my hair regularly clogs the bathroom and causes issues with plumbing. I went shopping for hair catchers and was intrigued by all the different patterns of shower drains. So I’ve been monitoring my hair loss and thinking a lot about hair and corporeality during lockdown, the bathroom as metaphor for our bodies. It’s an existential image concerning aging and death (issues with added resonance thanks to COVID), and it was an opportunity to reassert the circular motif, to look at the hole and see virulent forms. The lists are a mishmash of medical terms and symptoms, new words popularised by COVID, occasionally jarring provocations and other intrusive thoughts, which swirl into “regret”, “death” and “loss” in the central drain.

Panel 10: Wheel of Fortune, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 10: Wheel of Fortune. This panel brings together two familiar domestic scenes during the pandemic: media-propagated images of migrant workers quarantined in overcrowded dormitories during the outbreak, and the panic buying which resulted in empty shelves and long supermarket lines. I thought it would be interesting to place these very different narratives of scarcity, labour and production side-by-side. The grid alternately evokes a hamster cage, the board of a snakes-and-ladders game and a multiplication table (in the lower left-hand corner).

Panel 11: that wildfire bush arson plantation in heat love, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 11: that wildfire bush arson plantation in heat love. Possibly the drawing I struggled the most to complete. After the George Floyd protests happened in America, I knew that one of the drawings in the series had to address race and class relations across continents, communities and systems of power, in NYC where I had been the past 3.5 years, and at home in Singapore. But I really struggled to do justice to all that within a single drawing. In a way, the panel reflects all of that internal conflict and doubt. Race and class isn’t something we’re used to discussing in Singapore, and having to do that in my art forced me to confront my own identity and position within the system. When I moved to NYC, I went from being a Eurasian to a “person of colour”, or POC, although I often feel like my experiences are not being alluded to when the term POC is invoked. Even in Singapore I often feel like my experience of race varies depending on who I am speaking to and how I am read racially, but I have gotten used to finding myself in the position of the “outsider”. It is from this unstable sense of self and a desire to witness and acknowledge that I have created this work.

Panel 12: Alter Peace, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 12: Alter Peace. As a Catholic, I have always been fascinated by the iconography of religious art. This panel loosely crosses the visual dialect of COVID-19 with the stylistic and compositional conventions of a religious altarpiece. Within the central frame is an origin story/resurrection scene involving a pangolin (originally thought to be the animal responsible for spreading COVID-19 to humans) and a body with a white sheet draped over it. This is flanked by masks in the side wings which I thought of as angelic figures. At the top of the drawing is a social distancing ambassador in PPE who presides over the composition. “XR” in the lower right is a nod to the Extinction Rebellion movement. For some, the pandemic has had a uniquely religious dimension, prompting a renewal of faith. For many others, the pandemic has presented a crisis of faith at a more personal and secular level.

Panel 13: After thought, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 13: After thought. I always try to leave space for magic—something off, unexplained or strange; jarring. Something for the viewer to fill in. I think when there is mystery in a work of art is when we get closest to a spiritual and transcendent truth. Which is why often in my work there are things one can never fully make out, or in this series there are pops of colour which throw off the balance of the composition and don’t go anywhere. Not everything makes sense or can be explained in the real world, and I think good art should reflect that. This panel gestures towards the uncertainty of our post-COVID future. When I look at it it feels incomplete to me, and that’s what I like about it.

Panel 14: …what any of this was for, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

Panel 14: …what any of this was for. This final panel was started midway through the series when I killed a mosquito too close to the surface of the paper and its blood splattered in the lower left-hand corner. Instead of discarding the piece and starting over, I decided that the panel would reference the process of making the series, and traced the outline of my hand onto the paper, wiping what remained of the mosquito across the page. I then set the piece of paper aside to work on at the end of the series when I added the text and self-portrait to complete the drawing. The rectangle at the bottom references the first panel except with 2021 glasses looking out at a mostly empty page. This panel feels incomplete to me as well. I wanted the series to not so much end resolutely as pause, as if the artist was taking a break.

Other COVID-19 Drawings

These drawings didn’t quite make the 14 panels of the cycle for various reasons but are presented here as autonomous works.

passing through the night slowly missing…, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

1: passing through the night slowly missing… I am quite fond of this drawing, but it didn’t fit in with the other drawings tonally or sequentially, and I felt like it was retreading ground covered by some of the other drawings. It’s about late-night melancholia.

Lost Generation, 2020. Charcoal, graphite and pastel on paper. 18 x 24 inches.

2: Lost Generation. Some say the economic, social and psychological damage of the pandemic may result in a “lost generation” of disenfranchised youth. Graduating during the pandemic into a sobering job market, these fears were very much playing on my mind. I tried to channel the restless listlessness and playful energy of youth within this drawing.

Behind the Scenes

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error: Copyright © 2020, Bjorn Lee Varella. All Rights Reserved.
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